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Coverflips: The Not-So-Subtle Message of YA Cover Art

2013 May 13
by Julie Bartel
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[Editor's note: Maureen has posted a follow-up post.]

It started with a tweet:

 

That was May 6th. By May 7th, author Maureen Johnson’s tweet had turned into a full-blown challenge, with coverage all over the Internet. (You can follow the conversation and the challenge Johnson proposed on a variety of sites, from Tumblr to Twitter, with the hashtag #coverflip.)

Basically, Johnson, author of 13 Little Blue Envelopes, Devilish, The Name of the Star, and many other YA novels, contends that female authors are very often given cover art that tells readers the content is light, fluffy, easy, and “girly.”  In short,

If you are a female author, you are much more likely to get the package that suggests the book is of a lower perceived quality. Because it’s “girly,” which is somehow inherently different and easier on the palate. A man and a woman can write books about the same subject matter, at the same level of quality, and that woman is simply more likely to get the soft-sell cover with the warm glow and the feeling of smooth jazz blowing off of it.

After her initial tweet, Johnson asked readers to redesign book covers, changing the gender of the author and creating new artwork to reflect the genderswap. She used her own book, The Keys to the Golden Firebird, to illustrate her point. The book is “about three sisters who are dealing with the sudden death of their father,” she writes. “May, the middle sister, is trying to hold her family together and learn how to drive. This is the cover.”

golden firebird

There are additional examples on her personal Tumblr, and many, many more on the dedicated Coverflip Tumblr. The Huffington Post featured a slideshow of coverflips created by readers, selected by Johnson from the hundreds that were submitted in under 24 hours. Follow up articles appeared in the Guardian, among other news outlets, and a huge array of bloggers and authors chimed in, including Tamora Pierce, Amanda Hocking and Trish Doller.

The Hub has featured numerous posts on many aspects of cover art and design, including trends, copycat covers, racism in YA covers, great covers, and misleading covers, and many of those posts and their comments touch on the idea of “girl books” vs “boy books” and the effect perception has on which books readers pick up and how they judge the content. Judging by the number of female YA authors who retweeted, commented on, blogged about, or contributed coverflipped submissions, Johnson has hit a nerve. Laini Taylor, Sarah Dessen, Ellen Kushner, Cassandra Clare, Shannon Hale, Laurie Halse Anderson, Rainbow Rowell, Kiersten White … the list is extensive and the responses passionate.

I certainly have my own bias about cover art, as well as my own preconceptions and assumptions, so I decided to look through covers for past Printz Award winner and honor books with Johnson’s complaint in mind. There are definitely covers I like more than others, for a variety of reasons, and covers that I think work (or not). Connecting the dots between cover art, author gender, and the story itself was certainly a frustrating and enlightening exercise (though I confess many covers leave me scratching my head).  For example, look at the following covers:

why we broke up stolen jellicoe alaska

What do you think the cover art says about the content? Does it accurately reflect the story inside?

How about these:

aristotle and dante white darkness scorpio races please ignore

 

As Johnson says in “The Gender Coverup,”

We’re told not to judge books by them, but… EVERYBODY DOES. That is what they are for. They are the packages that get your attention, that give you messages about what to expect.

Which raises the question: do female authors get covers that signal “light and fluffy” while their male counterparts get “literary and worthwhile?” If a cover comes across as “girly” does that signal inferior? How does cover art influence your choice of what to read or your perception of the quality or content of a particular book? Perhaps more importantly, what can we as readers do to encourage and support all kinds of stories, for all kinds of readers, with cover art that truly reflects the contents of the book, not the gender of the author?

Did you contribute to the Coverflip project? If so, or if you’d like to do so now, link to your coverflipped contribution in the comments.

— Julie Bartel, currently reading Shadow on the Sun by David Macniss Gill and Messenger of Truth (Maisie Dobbs #4) by Jacqueline Winspear

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5 Responses
  1. May 14, 2013

    The above link to my blog post sends readers to Amanda Hocking’s post. Here is my link: http://trishdoller.blogspot.com/2013/05/coverflip.html.

    • Julie Bartel permalink
      May 15, 2013

      Hi Trish,

      Sorry about the incorrect link–it’s been fixed in the post. Thank you for bringing it to my attention!

  2. May 14, 2013

    I don’t think it’s female authors. In my discussions with both authors and publishers, the cover is more based on who the target audience is. So the “girly” covers are aimed at, dare I say it, girly-girls. Even if the material is “dark” they often still want that kind of cover, feeling that it will attract those readers. They do feel, right or wrong, that there are fewer guy purchasers of books, at least, so there is less incentive to create covers to appeal to them.

    • Julie Bartel permalink
      May 15, 2013

      I definitely agree that publishers create covers based on their perceived target audience–and why wouldn’t they? But I’m not sure there isn’t more to it than that. I was really taken aback when I looked at some of those Printz covers. The Daniel Handler book, for example, is described in the Amazon review as a “heartrending story of first love and other powerful firsts as Min reveals, item by item, what’s in the box she’s leaving on Ed’s doorstep.” A book with a female protagonist, about first love and heartbreak…

      I believe that the publisher might have been trying to widen the audience (to appeal to both boys and girls) by giving the book a simple, non-girly cover, and I can totally applaud them for that. But I also think it likely that if the book had been written by Danielle Handler the cover would look a lot different and that attempt to appeal to a wider audience might not have happened at all.

      Of course, the other part of this discussion that bothers me is the subtle (or not so subtle) message that a book with a “girly” cover is a bad thing. It’s not.

  3. L. Greenbaum permalink
    May 17, 2013

    Hi. I am catching up on my emails and just read your posts about “boys” and “girls” book and couldn’t agree more. I then came upon this in another listserv. You may have heard about or saw it already: http://letflythecannons.blogspot.com/2013/05/how-i-use-my-local-library.html.Note the last remark about girls liking the non-fiction he mentions. Why are these only for girls? Because they have pictures?

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